Articles | Volume 12, issue 5
Research article
21 May 2012
Research article |  | 21 May 2012

Rapid movement of frozen debris-lobes: implications for permafrost degradation and slope instability in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska

R. P. Daanen, G. Grosse, M. M. Darrow, T. D. Hamilton, and B. M. Jones

Abstract. We present the results of a reconnaissance investigation of unusual debris mass-movement features on permafrost slopes that pose a potential infrastructure hazard in the south-central Brooks Range, Alaska. For the purpose of this paper, we describe these features as frozen debris-lobes. We focus on the characterisation of frozen debris-lobes as indicators of various movement processes using ground-based surveys, remote sensing, field and laboratory measurements, and time-lapse observations of frozen debris-lobe systems along the Dalton Highway. Currently, some frozen debris-lobes exceed 100 m in width, 20 m in height and 1000 m in length. Our results indicate that frozen debris-lobes have responded to climate change by becoming increasingly active during the last decades, resulting in rapid downslope movement. Movement indicators observed in the field include toppling trees, slumps and scarps, detachment slides, striation marks on frozen sediment slabs, recently buried trees and other vegetation, mudflows, and large cracks in the lobe surface. The type and diversity of observed indicators suggest that the lobes likely consist of a frozen debris core, are subject to creep, and seasonally unfrozen surface sediment is transported in warm seasons by creep, slumping, viscous flow, blockfall and leaching of fines, and in cold seasons by creep and sliding of frozen sediment slabs. Ground-based measurements on one frozen debris-lobe over three years (2008–2010) revealed average movement rates of approximately 1 cm day−1, which is substantially larger than rates measured in historic aerial photography from the 1950s to 1980s. We discuss how climate change may further influence frozen debris-lobe dynamics, potentially accelerating their movement. We highlight the potential direct hazard that one of the studied frozen debris-lobes may pose in the coming years and decades to the nearby Trans Alaska Pipeline System and the Dalton Highway, the main artery for transportation between Interior Alaska and the North Slope.